It's not that he was never in the conversation. But over the past few months, it's seemed as if Marcus Smart has been pushed towards its outer perimeter.
The influx of superstar freshmen talent has become the focal point of this year's NBA draft talks. Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker—these are the names everyone mentions as the treasures and prizes in the field.
Smart was a potential top pick last June, though he chose to return as a sophomore and ultimately risk his stock. Nobody expected him to regress—Smart just passed on a bike race for one with Porsches and Ferraris. It was no secret last year's field was a weak one, while this year's is packed to the brim with potential NBA franchise centerpieces.
The improved competition has brought out the best in Smart, though. He's playing on a whole other level from a year ago. It's almost as if he used his freshman season to experiment and ultimately figure out the game's nuances and what he needs to change.
And now, he's applying what he's learned.
Smart has been putting up monster numbers early on. Entering Saturday, he was averaging 22.5 points, 3.7 assists, 3.5 steals and 2.5 threes made per game on 47 percent shooting and 40.5 percent from downtown. He's already gone for 39 against Memphis and 30 against Purdue, while his Cowboys look like one of the better teams in the nation.
He's actually making defenses look silly. Smart's elusiveness off the bounce, strength attacking the rim and lethal outside stroke have made him nearly impossible to contain.
But the increased production isn't what has landed him in the conversation—it just pushed him closer towards the center of it.
As a recruit, Smart had been praised for his winning track record and maturity. He took home two state championships in high school and a gold at the FIBA World Championships this past summer.
Even though he only shot 40 percent from the floor, 29 percent from downtown, sported a mediocre 4.2-3.4 assist-to-turnover ratio and lost in his first NCAA tournament game, scouts still considered Smart a potential No. 1 overall pick last March.
The NBA guys just love what he brings to the table from a leadership standpoint. His poise, basketball IQ and fearlessness represent everything you want in your lead guard.
And now that it appears he's worked out some of his fundamental kinks, Smart has taken the pressure on him and flipped it towards the freshmen.
With regard to his skill set, Smart's perimeter game has seen the most growth. His confidence is clearly a level higher, as he's taking and making shots we haven't seen from him before.
Smart only made 38 threes as a freshman, and he already has 15 through his first seven games as a sophomore. He's become a bigger threat with the ball in his hands now that he can score away from the rim, and those James Harden comparisons we used early last year are starting to look a little more realistic.
However, what ultimately separates Smart from other guards is his mentality and decision-making. He's able to manage an offense and help control the pace of a game. He knows when to attack, move the ball, push the tempo or create shots for teammates.
Smart has earned that reputation as a guy who makes his teammates better. And that was before his offensive explosion this year.
With a 6'4'', 220-pound frame, along with the skill set for either position, Smart also offers valuable versatility as a scorer or facilitator.
At the end of the day, Smart might not pack the same appetizing upside as guys like Wiggins, Parker, or even Dante Exum of Australia, the other top guard on our board. But he does possess some desirable qualities that simply can't be taught.
And now that he's quickly improving in the areas that he can, Smart is emerging into the total backcourt package.
The odds he goes top three might not be in his favor. But to go that high, he's not going to have to convince 14 teams. Only one will do.
Other than the Cleveland Cavaliers, I can't imagine there were too many teams, if any, who had Anthony Bennett the top-ranked prospect last year. All it takes is one general manager—the right general manager—to land a top pick in the lottery.
And you can be sure there'll be at least a few GMs who value Smart's skills, intangibles and reliability over some of his competitors' unpredictable upside.